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Wholphin, Issues 1-4: DVD Magazine of Rare and Unseen Short Films
McSweeney's brings back the DVD magazine
Loves: Good short films, animation, Wholphin
Likes: DVD magazines, Short Cinema Journal
Hates: How depressing some shorts can be
Back in the late '90s, a series of DVDs called Short Cinema Journal heralded the coming of the DVD magazine to the mainstream. Released on a regular basis, the discs featured a selection of short films and other similar quick-hit material, built around a theme, like seduction or authority. There were 11 releases, marked by some excellent movies, like Chris Marker's La Jetee and Vin Diesel's little-seen Multifacial, some forgettable filler, and an unfortunately complicated presentation marred by commercials. Though there were a few similar series on other topics, like music and international film, the concept never caught on, perhaps arriving before its time.
Today, subscription-based periodical DVD releases, like Film Movement's series, are more common, and now there's Wholphin, a quarterly DVD publication collecting short content. It makes sense that the minds behind McSweeney's, who made the literary journal work online, have made the magazine concept work on DVD, presenting, in their own words, rare and unseen short films. That's not the whole story though, as you get a variety of material, including TV shows, presentations, cartoons and clips (basically anything under an hour in length.) With no theme limiting the collections, and a hip crowd as the target audience, the range of selections is immense, including everything from experimental art installations to TV pilots, film excerpts to animation, documentaries to how-to's. It's truly the magazine's strength that it can pull together such disparate elements and make them work together.
In the first issue of Wholphin, things get off to a solid start with a never-aired 13-minute documentary on then Vice-President and presidential candidate Al Gore. Directed by Spike Jonze, it's a simple, homey affair that presents Gore as a geeky family man, that counters the image many have of the publicly-stiff politician. It's unlikely it would have changed the election the way Wholphin claims, but it could have been a good start. It's challenged for its spot as the highest-profile "article" by the excellent The Big Empty, directed by J. Lisa Chang and Newton Thomas Siegel. Clocking in at 21 minutes, the film is a beautiful, touching and humorous adaptation starring Selma Blair, in a role that few besides her could have played. As a woman with an emptiness inside her you can only imagine, Blair is fantastic, while Elias Koteas is perfectly creepy as the specialist she turns to for help. Cameos by Richard Kind and Hugh Laurie only add to the best fantasy gynecology film this side of Teeth.
There's more star-power to come in Are You the Favorite Person of Anyone?, written by and featuring Miranda July, directed by Michael Arteta, and starring John C. Reilly (with a cameo by Mike White.) A quick four minutes of contemplation on the value of one's existence, it's a near-perfect example of minute cinema. Similarly short and entertaining is Carson Mell's animated The Writer, which is done in the "Clutch Cargo" style, mixing cartoons and actual moving mouths. Mell's pieces are less about the art (which resembles the work of Charles Burns) and more about the very down-home way they tell stories about unique individuals.
Outside of an excerpt from a David O. Russell (Three Kings) documentary on American soldiers and the spoils of war in Iraq, an odd little film with Patton Oswald and David Byrne, and a guy singing "Stairway to Heaven" backwards, the most memorable piece remaining in this issue is "Tatli Hayat," the Turkish adaptation of the American sitcom "The Jeffersons." Now, the concept alone would be worth a look, but it's the Wholphin spin that makes it a gem. In addition to a subtitle track of the dialogue (for which I am wholly grateful), you get five additional subtitle tracks, which reinvent the show in various ways. Culturally sensitive, it's certainly not, but two of the tracks are simply brilliant, while two others are simply enjoyable. The fifth, which doesn't try too hard, gives up on the idea of a fake subtitle, but fails to make the conceit clever enough. thankfully, it's not the last sitcom to get the Wholphin treatment.
- Death of a Hen: Animated fable done in an amusing faux filmstrip style.
- The House in the Middle: An obnoxious PSA from the atomic era that tries to convince homeowners that a fresh coat of paint will prevent Armageddon
- The Delicious: A man has an unhealthy obsession with a pantsuit, in a film that's more visually interesting than storywise
- Malek Khorshid: Curiosity piece mostly, it's a legend-ish cartoon from mid-'70s Iran
- The Great Escape: from Jeroen Offerman (the "Stairway" guy from before) comes this Warhol-esque exercise in patience
The second issue of the series boasts more content than any issue to date; more than what's listed on the back cover even, starting with the menu movies. "Baby Squid, Born Like Stars" is a beautiful view of a squid and her babies, set against one of the boldest blue seas you'll ever see. It's simply a pretty picture of nature, but we'll take it. Less gorgeous is Andy Richter in the Wholphin original, "The Quest," which is very short and very silly. Another Wholphin original, "The Competition," is a unique bit of observation that leaves you wondering what you're watching until almost the very end.
Getting into the content proper left me less intrigued than the first issue, though overall it's still a strong issue, as one would guess when you've got material from Steven Soderbergh, Steve Carell, Bob Odenkirk and a wacky Japanese TV production. Soderbergh delivers an interesting mix of music and visual style in the short Building No. 7, produced exclusively for Wholphin, while Carell provides a very Michael Scott-like cameo in the fun American Storage, which pairs up Martin Starr ("Freaks and Geeks") with David Krumholtz ("Numbers".) Odenkirk's entry is a hilarious unaired pilot about a date at a Holocaust museum, featuring Simon Helberg ("The Big Bang Theory") and a guest appearance by Zach Galifianakis, though it has a hard time stacking up to another re-purposed foreign sitcom, this time a wacky Japanese take on "Bewitched," including a subtitle track from Mr. Lemony Snicket himself, Daniel Handler.
Though two of the feature articles, Home, James and Don't Spare the Horses and The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello, are beautifully built, especially the gorgeous animation in Jasper Morello, like their titles, the films are just two long for their pacing. Home, James is interesting enough, but it lingers a bit too much after a strong opening, while Jasper Morello is just too meandering for its own good. You could say that the excerpt from Errol Morris' aborted The Movie Movie also overstays its welcome, but at less than four minutes, that seems impossible, until you listen to Donald Trump talk about Citizen Kane.
Of the remaining stand-out bits, More is a visually stunning bit of animation from Mark Osbourne (Kung Fu Panda), though it was available as part of Short Cinema Journal, and Sour Death Balls is an adorably funny first film from Oscar-winner Jessica Yu about the effect of a particularly aggressive candy.
- The Mesmerist: A recovered film from 1926, with Boris Karloff and Lionel Barrymore, it's been reworked with new music into this atmospheric short
- How to Poke Pole a Monkey-Faced Eel: Hosted by a real-life Dwight Schrute, its title is self-explanatory
The contents of the third issue are all over the place, representing more genres and more topics, though there's an undercurrent of horror that's frequently present, starting with Alexander Payne's student film The Passion of Martin. The black sense of humor he made famous with Election and later films, is on full display here in a creeptastic tale of obsession. Creepy doesn't begin to cover the feeling displayed in Kitchen, a French short that makes me less likely to order lobster for my next meal. And if the creepy crawlers in that film didn't keep me up at night, the science documentary "Ballistic Jaw Propulsion of Trap-Jaw Ants" should do the trick, as I find another bug I need to worry about at all times.
A frequent subject of short films is the injustice in the world, as they are a very effective way of reaching people with messages and calls to action to help the world. This series doesn't ignore that aspect of short filmmaking, and A Stranger in Her Own City is a good example of it, focusing on the plight of women in theocratic Middle Eastern countries, like Nejmia, the Yemeni girl at the center of the film. A free-spirit, she is subject to scorn and ridicule by the people in her area, and the film shows her strength in the face of such treatment. It's good to see someone stand up against an oppressive establishment, but depressing to know the situation exists in reality. Another short about world politics arrives as Wholphin's "Yeah, Yeah. We Speak English. Just Serve," a unique look at border policy, in the form of an international volleyball match at the wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
Another Helberg short from Odenkirk doesn't hit the same highs as No. 2's "The Pity Chair," while Flotsam/Jetsam is a bit of meta filmmaking that bends reality through some controlled camera chaos. It's not the most accomplished short, but is admirable for what it attempts to do. Similar praise can be given to Tactical Advantage, a possibly blasphemous, definitely gorgeous piece of moving art that's utterly dreamlike, though not quite reaching the surreal highs of the excerpts from Funky Forest: The First Contact. If you can watch these bizarre scenes, including a blood-sucking creature attacked with shame, and not feel at least slightly curious about watching the rest of the film, you might not have a pulse. They are just that fascinating to watch.
Also fascinating to watch is Never Like the First Time, a quartet of animated accounts of the loss of virginity. Each one is done in a style appropriate for the story. A mix of humor and pathos makes these tales universal and engaging, as the sense of disappointment with the experience is palpable and lends itself well to the animation. If there's any disappointment in this issue though, it's the overly hyped rediscovered art piece by Dennis Hopper, "The Russian Suicide Chair." Described on the cover as "unforgettable," it sees Hopper put himself in the midst of a package of explosive. Unfortunately, I've seen it done before several times (on Jackass and Criss Angel I believe), and it's all looked better than the muddy footage included here. If not for Hopper's involvement, this certainly wouldn't be included here.
The fourth and final issue in this set pulls back on the celebrity, with only one film featuring a famous participant, that being High Falls, which stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard. Unfolding fast and then slow, this story of a couple expecting a child and harboring secrets is simply but beautifully shot on a naturally-lit group of settings. Plus, unlike many shorts, there's actually an ending to enjoy. That's more than you can say for Strange Culture which is represented here by an excerpt. The frightening story of the government's attempt to build a terrorism case against artist Steve Kurtz doesn't have an end on this disc, but the mix of interviews and animation will make you want to follow the tale to the finale. The anti-terror fun doesn't end there though, as Tom's War on Terror provides a quick note on profiling in everyday life.
On a lighter note, music gets the spotlight in a pair of shorts that add up to a half-hour of enjoyment. Heavy Metal Jr. is as close to a real Spinal Tap as you're likely to find, as a pre-teen black metal band from Scotland battles expectations and each other, as well as a stage dad who seems to want to be a rocker himself, on the way to their big gig. It's hilarious and sad, all at the same time. Heavy Metal Drummer, on the other hand, is a fictional account of a Moroccan kid who just wants to rock out when everyone wants him to conform. It may be based in another world, but it's easy to identify with the poor guy who just wants to pound the skins.
The story of a repressed young French nun, La Chatte Andalouse is an odd little tale that centers around her interest in creating casts of God's most intimate male creations, blending guilt, sexuality and belly dancing in an interesting way that looks very Merchant-Ivory, but is more hip than that. On the other end of the spectrum, "Schastlivy Vmeste" is certainly not Merchant-Ivory in any way, as it's the Russian interpretation of "Married...with Children." Once again, you get an original transcript, along with a few new scripts, and again, one that just didn't try hard enough, instead devolving into a personal story about foreign languages.
Though it's simple as all get out, site specific_LAS VEGAS 05 is one of the most amazing things I've ever watched. A montage or aerial footage shot in the area of Las Vegas, this seven minute short will twist your mind, as the technique used will make you go back and forth, saying "Is this real?" and "That's a model, right?" It's certainly one of those things where you must see it to believe it. More to the point, you simply must see it.
- Two Cars, One Night: This Kiwi flick is innocent, yet dark, as two kids waiting in cars outside the local bar become friends. Seeing kids on screen act like kids is refreshing.
- Cheeta: Watch as a Hollywood primate lives out his golden years. It's cute, but limited due to a lack of story
This four-issue set shrinkwraps the first four volumes of Wholphin into a brick, with a dab of easily removable adhesive between the cases for stability. The individual volumes are packaged in cleanly-designed digipaks, with a tray on the left side and a 39-page booklet glued into the right inside panel, while a content breakdown is on the back cover. Wholphin stays loyal to the magazine concept right down to the annoying subscription card that falls out.
The discs feature animated menus with a list of content, but it's not your usual menu animation. What's in the background is the beginning of one of the shorts, which will keep playing if you don't select an option. Some issues have as many four menu films, which can be chosen from a list in the lower right of the screen. There are no instructions included, which can make it a bit confusing at first, and without a play-all option, you have to wait for menus to appear at times, but it's a unique way to present the material. There are no audio options, no subtitles and no closed captioning.
How do you effectively review the video quality of 49 shorts from across time and space? Unfortunately, I don't think you can (and if I could, who would really read it?) All you can really say is that, for the most part, the various elements look appropriate, without noticeable dirt, damage or digital artifacts, though older pieces, like the 1975 Iranian animated short Malek Khorshid, can look a bit rough due to their age. The only negative is the inconsistency of the aspect ratios, as some widescreen films, like American Storage, are letterboxed, while others are anamorphic, which is a disappointment. Overall though, the discs look good, while some of the newest films, especially the Wholphin productions, are visually brilliant.
Oddly, considering the age of surround sound that we are a part of, everything presented in Wholphin (unless I missed something) arrives with a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack, which serves the films fine, with clean dialogue and clear sound effects and music. You can't help but think though that some of these movies, especially the more musical pieces, like Soderbergh's Building No. 7 or Heavy Metal Jr., would have benefited from a more enhanced mix. Perhaps the materials just weren't available, or perhaps it would have cost too much, but back in 1999, Short Cinema Journal was sporting 5.1 tracks.
The material is, in a way, a collection of extras, but there actually is a bit of bonus material included, starting with the somewhat extensive booklets that are a part of each volume's packaging. Following an always well-written intro from Wholphin editor Brent Hoff, the booklet contains interviews with filmmakers, subjects or other related people, along with biographies, essays or background information on the included films. I would suggest waiting to read the booklet until after you watch the disc, as it can be very valuable and enjoyable to come into the discs cold and without any knowledge or expectations about the shorts. But definitely read them, as they are excellent supplements to the discs.
Also included is the three-episode 2004 BBC documentary series, "The Power of Nightmares," which is spread over three bonus discs, included with issues two, three and four. Packaged in simple brown cardboard sleeves inserted into the package, it's unlikely this series will get wide distribution in the U.S., thanks to political and lesser financial reasons, but here's a chance to see what all the controversy has been about. The series compares the growth of the neo-conservative movement in America with the rise of radical Islam around the world, and positions them as siblings, working at similar goals and with similar techniques. The part that ruffles the most feathers though is the theory advanced in the film that radical Islam, particularly Al Qaeda, is mostly overblown and partially invented by the neo-conservatives to further their own cause.
The series stands out from most documentaries, complimenting the traditional talking heads with montages of archival material with narration from creator Adam Curtis, instead of first-hand footage. The technique gives the pieces a level of artistry that few documentaries achieve, and makes the series more accessible to those not usually interested in the genre, as the high-paced editing and mix of visuals create real energy and momentum. Of course, if you take issue at all with the concepts being put out there by Curtis, it's not going to be easy to get into this series, as it's hardcore about establishing its point. Does it hold up factually? I'm not a history buff, but it sounds pretty convincing, even if there are plenty of critics who will argue against it. Either way, it's solidly constructed.
The Bottom Line
If you have an open mind and enjoy discovering something new, Wholphin is a Godsend, bringing interesting and entertaining new short subject media to you on a regular basis, filling the gap that exists between film festivals and the viewers who can't get to this material. The presentation is solid from top to bottom, though the audio won't blow anyone away, and the limited extras are a pretty nice addition to the package. Though not everyone will get into the unique mix of content, if you're feeling a slight desire to check it out, you'll likely enjoy yourself.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.